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Civil Rights icons explore nature of moral leadership

Aug. 16, 2012, 9:47 AM

John Seigenthaler, left, and the Rev. James Lawson Jr. discuss moral leadership during a conference this week in Light Hall. (photo by Lou Outlaw)

The Rev. James E. Lawson Jr. and John Seigenthaler, two legends of the Civil Rights era who viewed non-violent demonstrations in Nashville from very different seats in the 1960s, sat side-by-side Tuesday at a packed lunchtime conversation in Light Hall about the essentials of developing moral leadership.

In defining the essentials of moral leadership, each man described the other as a moral leader. Seigenthaler stated he felt the roots of moral leadership expressed during the Civil Rights era began in black churches, with religious morality, which evolved into Lawson’s teachings of non-violence. Lawson said people like Seigenthaler showed moral leadership by viewing societal change as something to learn and know about, and to become engaged in.

Seigenthaler, director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt, said that as a young reporter for The Tennessean he witnessed moral leadership in college students who participated in the lunch-counter sit-ins, then later in the frighteningly volatile standoffs between non-violent freedom riders and angry mobs.

“As I sit here today, looking back 50 years, I am in awe of the lesson those students had learned, that hatred made no sense and that there was power in non-violent protest, even though every one of them was at risk.”

Lawson taught non-violent theory to many of those same students before being expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960. Afterward, he continued work to teach non-violence, saying Gandhi inspired his belief that non-violence possesses power that the “power of the fist” does not. He added that to talk about non-violence in the midst of a violent society might have been the height of foolishness, but fellow Civil Rights leader John Lewis, (now a Congressional representative from Atlanta) communicated the power of non-violence as a weapon.

“Violence has not created a better world. The non-violent demonstrations convinced the students in the Civil Rights movement that they had a hidden resource of power, that non-violence wasn’t the power of domination or control; it was the power of passionate care, human values and sensibilities to achieve a purpose,” Lawson said.

Lawson, who returned to Vanderbilt as a Distinguished University Professor and Alumnus in 2006, went on to say he feels many of society’s problems today are a result of leadership that makes decisions based on the bottom line rather than the needs of society.

The event was organized by George C. Hill, Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor for Multicultural Affairs.

Vanderbilt staff and faculty can view the discussion here.

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